Thousands of marathon runners lined up in Boston, Mass., yesterday and put their bodies under a physically painful yet emotionally positive experience that experts liken to natural childbirth. Researchers from the Institute of Psychology at Jagiellonian University studied how marathon runners felt after they crossed the finish line and found striking similarities to childbirth.
The study’s lead researcher, Przemyslaw Babel, surveyed 62 marathon finishers who ran the Cracovia Marathon in Poland in 2012. He asked them to rate the intensity of pain they experienced, the unpleasantness they felt, and the positive and negative emotions they were going through at the moment. Three to six months later, he asked them the same questions, and a majority underestimated the pain they first reported. One runner, for instance, reported a pain intensity at 5.5 out of a 7-point scale, but six months later recalled a 3.2 level of pain.
The pain memory they recalled later on remained high if they also reported feeling negative emotions, such as distress and fear. From a psychological standpoint, memories of pain are exacerbated if pain was the focus of the experience because it was influenced by the context of a runner’s emotions. Researchers looked back at a previous study published in the European Journal of Pain, which found the type of pain and accuracy of the memory depended on how the initial pain resided with the mother.
Comparatively, giving birth and running a marathon form long-term memories of pain and emotional experience in the same way. It isn’t to say that the pain a mother experiences from giving natural birth is the same pain a marathon runner feels when they cross a finish line. But positive feelings also carry the same ripple effect in a person’s mind. The sense of accomplishment from running a marathon and giving birth is an emotionally positive experience.
Next, researchers will investigate how pain memory influences a person’s goals, expectations, and emotions prior to an event they’ve experienced pain during. In a blog by mother and marathon runner Katie, she explains the 11 ways running a marathon was like the natural and un-medicated birth she experienced three years ago.
Pregnant again and due next month, Katie recalls how seven marathons prepared her emotionally and physically for the stamina, endurance, and muscular demands childbirth required of her. The mental strength marathon running provided helped her to develop patience, will, determination, and focus to get through the exhausting experiences. Having experienced both, she says she can’t wait to go through them both again (separately, of course).
“I focused on the fact that it wasn’t going to last forever and that I would get an amazing reward at the end,” Katie writes, “whether it’s a baby, a medal, the feeling of pride and accomplishment, or the awesome high and endorphins that you get once you are done.”